By Emily Davis, Contributing Writer
(photo courtesy of creative commons)
In the early hours of the morning your pager begins to sound. The pager and the base it is charging on are vibrating violently on your nightstand, and the sequence of tones specific to your fire department come blaring through the speaker. You leap out of bed, run to the garage, throw on your bunker gear (sometimes with the help of your spouse), turn on your blue light, and drive to the firehouse or scene as quickly as possible. While you are driving, a check list begins running through your head as the dispatcher goes over the information for a second time. What trucks will need to be on scene? What equipment will I need for this call? Do I grab a truck, or head straight to the scene? The list goes on and on. When you finally arrive at the scene, all of your training kicks in and you begin to work with the other firefighters like a well-oiled machine. Barring any curve balls, the rest of the call will proceed according to protocol.
This is the life of a volunteer firefighter. Most times they do not wait to hear what the call is about or where it is located before they begin throwing on their gear; they just know someone is in trouble and in need of their help. Nevertheless, as soon as the McKendree address comes from the dispatcher’s mouth, a collective groan comes from the firefighters. Their immediate thought is “some college student has forgotten to put water in their mac & cheese again” and feel the sudden urge to ignore the call. Can you blame them?
Jason Finks of the Lebanon-Emerald Mound Volunteer Fire Department (L.V.F.D.) states that “bogus calls create complacent firefighters” and can be potentially disastrous. It is similar to the old tale of the boy who cried wolf; the more times firefighters have to get out of bed for mac & cheese smoke, the less likely they are to feel compelled to respond to fire calls concerning McKendree. In light of this, Finks says that the chief has reminded them that if you are available and able, you are obligated to answer the call. While this complacency has not yet become a big issue, there is an increasing issue with the complacency of students in these “emergencies”. Students think “the idiot down the hall has burned his midnight snack” and they stay comfortably tucked into their beds. If it was a real emergency, they could end up trapped in a burning building waiting for the firefighters to rescue them. In light of this, the fire department has turned these calls into “teachable moments” and explained to the Resident Assistants (RA) the necessity of a speedy exit strategy for all of the students regardless of the hour or cause. They also encourage RAs to address cooking in microwaves directly when talking to their residents; they discuss how important it is to read the cooking instructions on food, and to always keep an eye on food you are cooking. In recent years, the number of mac & cheese calls has been reduced to five or six a year.
The interesting thing is, mac & cheese emergencies are not technically considered to be bogus calls. Since the burning food creates enough smoke to set off the fire alarm, they are not considered “unfounded” or bogus. Therefore, McKendree is not charged a penalty fee for an unfounded call. An instance of a truly unfounded call is when the fire alarm went off in Clark while the building was undergoing remodeling. The cloud of dust tripped the fire alarm, which is monitored by emergency services, and the fire department was dispatched. In instances like this, McKendree is charged a certain fee to dissuade bogus calls like this from happening again. Another example of an unfounded call is when a fire alarm is pulled as a prank. This not only costs McKendree money, but also wastes the volunteer firefighter’s time.
Another interesting problem McKendree poses for the fire department is the accessibility of the buildings. In the case of the new residence halls, a firetruck will be unable to fit in the narrow parking lot on the north side of the building. They will therefore have to stay up on the road and run hoses down to the building or drive around. Firetrucks are not easily maneuverable, and they can become stuck in muddy, damp areas quite easily because during a call they may be sitting in the same spot for multiple hours.
The L.V.F.D. is a group of highly trained firefighters, and it is a shame to waste their time and resources on unnecessary calls. Every firefighter has a monthly drill commitment that they must complete in order to be an active member on the department. There is an opportunity for the firefighters to attend drill every Tuesday; they choose one of these a month that fits into their schedules. These drills help them to stay up to date on what equipment is on the trucks, how to operate all the equipment, and to ensure that all of their equipment and tools are in working order. This time is also used to teach new firefighters more about the department, the different skills and training they will have to learn, and to meet the people they will be working closely with in crisis situations. Furthermore, there is a second, smaller station in Summerfield that does not have as many firefighters as the one in Lebanon. Firefighters like Jason Finks not only answer Lebanon calls, but also provide aid to Summerfield whenever they can. All of the local firefighters are unpaid, and they dedicate a numerous amount of their time and energy to helping the Lebanon and Summerfield communities.
Having been raised by a volunteer firefighter myself, I have witnessed the struggles and pains of dedicating your time and energy to the service of others. I have also seen the many joys. The kids learning and laughing during fire safety day, the comradery between the men and women, the sense of accomplishment when a call ends well for everyone involved, and the relief of the families when their firefighter returns home, all make the job worthwhile. So, whenever you find yourself cooking something in the microwave late at night, keep the sacrifices of these men and women in mind and add water!